TIMES ARE CHANGING

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THE MECHANICAL INDUSTRY IS IN A SEASON OF RAPID CHANGE, EXPERIMENTING WITH EFFICIENT TECHNOLOGIES AND PIONEERING THE USE OF SPACE-AGE MATERIALS. BUT IT ALSO FEATURES A NEW CHALLENGER – THE SO-CALLED ‘SMARTWATCH’. IN THIS SPECIAL FEATURE FROM CALIBRE MAGAZINE, WE TAKE A LOOK AT WHAT’S NEXT FOR LUXURY SWISS WATCHES

Sceptics welcomed the Great Mechanical Watch Revival of the late 1980s and 1990s, because the failure of quartz to vanquish the mechanical watch seemed to reinforce the notion that ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’. But quartz didn’t
fail entirely: it owns the mass market, and is the only choice for those who prefer watches like Casio’s G-Shock, with myriad functions that require electricity. Mechanical, on the other hand, owns the luxury and enthusiast sectors.

When it comes to mechanical watches, there are two areas – materials and technological advances – that will ensure there is always something new under the sun. Although the basics are defined (nearly every worthwhile mechanical movement refinement or complication was either devised or perfected by Breguet and the other pioneers of pocket watches through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries), there is still room for further ingenuity. George Daniels’ Co-Axial Escapement, used exclusively by Omega for the past 15 years, is a perfect example, in that it removes the need for lubricants in order to keep a watch’s parts moving fluidly.

Downsizing of the various functions for wristwatches came along soon after the commercial wristwatch first appeared, with world-timers, diving watches, shock resistance, automatic winding, luminosity and most other useful developments landing on one’s wrist before or because of World War II. Nearly all were refinements of work begun in the previous centuries. Nothing new, etc…

Patek Philippe annual calendar ref 5960/1A-001. Steel 40.5mm case and bracelet, automatic chronograph movement, silver dial, day, date and month display, calendar mechanism, water-resistant to 30m. Price: £36,920

What was denied Breguet and other 18th-century watchmaking pioneers like Harrison and Arnold were the cutting-edge substances we take for granted nowadays. It’s also the case that some developments could only have occurred as a result of others: for instance, quartz timekeeping requires a portable electric power source, but innovators of previous eras could never have foreseen fingernail-sized batteries – or, indeed, self-lubricating parts, carbon fibre or LCD displays.

Nonetheless, breaking new ground remains the province of brands in the prestige sector, because when materials are new, they’re costly. But they don’t stay that way for long: titanium-cased watches can now be found at prices below £500, and carbon fibre is hardly exotic. Ceramics are next to plummet in price, leaving us to wonder which case material will captivate the brands next.

Arguably, the more significant advances now being made in mechanical watchmaking are inside the watch. The most prominent of these over the last decade have been the steps taken with silicon, first witnessed a decade ago. Pioneering research into silicon came from brands firmly in the high-end sector, including De Bethune, Omega, Patek Philippe and Ulysse Nardin. Silicon is wonder-stuff with industry-wide potential, and looks set to replace many components, although metals do add the psychological benefit of heft, while precious metals add a luxury feel.

Rolex Oyster Perpetual MilgaussRolex Oyster Perpetual Milgauss. Stainless steel 40mm case and bracelet, automatic COSC-certified movement, 48-hour power reserve, antimagnetic, Z blue dial, water-resistant to 100m. Price: £5,500

But the benefits of silicon are so great, one can understand why these makers have pursued its possibilities. It’s light, self-lubricating, wear-resistant and easy to replicate. For the consumer, this means better timekeeping and longer intervals between services. Silicon part counts will only increase, from gears and springs to whatever other components the brands choose to devise. And prices should fall.

When it comes to completely new technologies, as opposed to just the materials, 2014 is the year of the ‘smartwatch’, and it’s as much of a misnomer as I’ve ever heard, because it is a truly stupid idea. Smartwatches try to do everything that a smartphone does – only smaller. Too small? Certainly: their screens are too cramped to be practical, bound as they are by the need to fit on one’s wrist.

Smartwatches simply cannot go much above 50x50mm without looking like an electronic GPS ankle tag relocated to the wrist. Hence there will be nothing ‘epic’ about Game Of Thrones watched on a screen the size of a matchbook.

Calibre Magazine 2010s Omega Seamaster 300 Master Co-AxialOmega Seamaster 300 Master Co-Axial. Stainless steel 41mm case and bracelet, automatic movement, 60-hour power reserve, antimagnetic, black dial, water-resistant to 300m. Price: £4,170

Actually using most extant smartwatches requires the presence of a phone linked by Bluetooth, so they’re hardly a substitute. Until voice recognition truly is perfected, they require the use of the other hand to operate – sales pitches about freeing a user from holding a phone are specious at best. Battery life, too, remains an issue.

But such is the rush toward smartwatches that even serious, established houses make quiet remarks about them in their futures. They see the trend as a genuine threat because the players at this stage in smartwatch development – giants such as Samsung and Sony, with Apple sure to weigh in soon – are huge rivals that the watch brands cannot afford to pooh-pooh.

It is the next generation that the watch industry fears losing to smartwatches, as phones have already led to a decline in the number of under-30s who wear watches. Deep in the bowels of ateliers in Geneva, it’s certain that the product planners are aware of the inherent limitations of the smartwatch – but they know, too, that they will not go away. Yet.

 Breitling Navitimer GMTBreitling Navitimer GMT. Stainless steel 48mm case, automatic chronograph movement, 70-hour power reserve, second time zone, circular slide rule bezel, leather strap, water-resistant to 30m.Price: £6,920

As one who has worked in consumer electronics for over 40 years, I would beg them to tread carefully. The world is full of electronic fiascos, including Betamax, 3D TV, and other poorly conceived ‘revolutions’. The smartwatch may never disappear entirely, but equally it might also join such other wonders as the electric carving knife and other inane devices that people bought and quickly stuffed in a drawer after finding them, er, stupid.

Intriguingly, back in 2013, Swatch revealed the clever and affordable SISTEM51, a reinvention of the mechanical watch, so-named because it reduces the number of components in an automatic movement to just 51. The industry is eagerly anticipating the results of the first year’s sales – and not just the numbers, but the demographic. Will it revive interest in watches among a younger clientele? Or must a device be electronic to capture the youth market?

Back in the world of mechanical watches, it’s clear that the brands en masse are still enamoured of high-end complications, which still have the power to send men and women of culture and discerning judgement into rapture. Perpetual calendars, tourbillons, moon phases, minute repeaters, even the more obscure equation of time – there’s no sign any of these are staring over the precipice and into oblivion.

Hublot Big Bang Unico Bi-Retrograde Chrono Ceramic CarbonHublot Big Bang Unico Bi-Retrograde Chrono Ceramic Carbon. Satin-finished and polished black ceramic 45mm case, automatic chronograph movement, 72-hour power reserve, bi-retrograde display, black dial, rubber strap, water-resistant to 100m. Price: £18,200

In the same way, consumers continue to gorge on cherished models of the past – a tendency that hasn’t been lost on the industry’s creatives. The relentless revival of vintage designs continued apace at Baselworld 2014, where Omega introduced its Seamaster 300 (now reinvented with a distinctly forward-thinking antimagnetic ‘Master’ Co-Axial calibre), and Breitling presented the latest version of its evergreen Navitimer, first seen in 1952 and now with a GMT function. ‘Ultra-thins’, also born in the 1950s, are the current flavour for dress watches among just about everyone. Many of the best ‘new’ watches, then, are blasts from the past, falling under the heading of ‘retro’.

Not that this is boring – especially when, alongside these, we find more adventurous brands such as Urwerk, HYT and others taking a radical approach to how time is displayed. Perhaps, after all is said and done, we may not want anything too new. Under the sun or on our wrists. But we do love surprises.

-Ken Kessler-

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